The young women at the center of Mayday lure men to their deaths by broadcasting distress calls over the radio of the grounded submarine they call home. However, when the men set off to save them, they quickly find they’re the ones who need help. Their shouts of terror sound over the radio until there’s nothing left but static. While this updated take on the Sirens of Greek mythology makes for a compelling concept and Mayday introduces some intriguing ideas about women’s oppression and empowerment, the movie’s story ultimately meanders, never following through on its heady themes.
Mayday starts by introducing Ana (Grace Van Patten), a down-on-her-luck waiter. After her abusive boss corners her during a blackout caused by a storm, she follows a voice through a lit oven, and after being spit out in a deep sea, ends up washed up on the shore of an alternate universe that’s in the middle of a war. There she meets Marsha (Mia Goth), the leader of a group of women, including Gert (Soko) and Bea (Havana Rose Liu), who seem less interested in taking sides in the war than killing any man they make contact with.
Marsha teaches Ana to shoot a gun, swim, and improbably, to see really far. As she becomes better at taking care of herself, Ana feels increasingly empowered, and although she’s unquestionably participated in the group’s Siren ploy, she starts to question whether they should be equal opportunity man killers. This puts her on a collision course with Marsha, who believes all men are equally bad, even as she implies that her history of violence has had a corrosive impact on her psyche. In the end, Ana makes a decision that not only changes everything for her, but for all the women in this fantasy world.
The first third of Mayday casts a fascinating spell, as Ana, like Alice before her, falls down a metaphorical rabbit hole and finds herself in a strange but beautiful new world. Writer and director Karen Cinorre’s setup is interesting enough to draw viewers in and make them want to know what happens next. Yet, after the first act, the story quickly loses steam as the characters are caught up in a cycle of swimming, hanging out, and fighting nameless men.
Though the movie alludes to plot points involving sexual assault and suicide, it handles them too delicately to say anything especially meaningful. Similarly, while the final act touches on a debate about whether all men should be lumped into one category, it never goes into any detail and the conclusions it comes to feel entirely superficial. Meanwhile, despite a game cast, there’s too little information provided about any of the characters to get invested in them. Even Juliette Lewis, who stops by for a cameo in the third act, isn’t given enough to do to goose the film into feeling more lively. Instead, Mayday bobs along the surface of a story that had the potential to go much deeper.
Still, that surface looks fantastic. With cinematographer Sam Levy, Cinorre has created a visually stunning world that combines the gritty trappings of war with the natural beauty of the seaside paradise where Ana, Marsha, and the others reside. Likewise, the costume design by Ola Staszko creates an interesting aesthetic that combines dresses with combat boots and military jackets. Nonetheless, while it’s easy to be enchanted by the look of Mayday, the story doesn’t offer the same rewards.